David Bowie & Genre Film

For sometime it seemed like David Bowie could not age, that he was indeed an immortal vampire of sorts, but last night he lost his private fight with cancer. Bowie’s body may be dead, however, his work that spans six decades had already elevated him to immortality. Amongst these works were several unforgettable film roles in the genres of horror, science fiction, and fantasy for which those in fandom will always remember him.


David Bowie’s first ever film, The Image (1967), is actually a horror story. Bowie plays “The Boy” in a dark short film that was partially inspired by Oscar Wilde’s The Portrait of Dorian Gray. The Artist (played by Michael Byrne, best known for his part as Vogel in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade) is haunted and pursued by the subject of his painting who just won’t die, no matter how many times the Artist tries to kill the Boy. The film is just over ten minutes long, and probably could have been shorter, but the 20-year-old Bowie already displays his strange allure, especially through his gesture in the painting that seems to possess more life than the physical manifestation . . . 

In total, David Bowie has 38 film and television credits, some of which seem like they were written specifically for him, starting with The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) in which he plays Thomas Jerome Newton, an alien disguised as a human. The film is laced with psychedelic imagery and editing as Newton attempts his mission on Earth to get water to his dying planet. To fund his mission, Newton uses his advance knowledge of technology to start a successful business, but the human weakness of greed from ruthless businessmen causes major obstacles.

The next role that was a perfect match for Bowie was that of John Blaylock in the film The Hunger (1983), directed by Tony Scott, and also starring Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon. Blaylock is a vampire, but only because he is the current consort to Lady Miriam (Deneuve), a vampire from ancient Egypt. When she tires of him as a partner he only has 24 hours left, and in his desperation Blaylock turns to Dr. Sarah Roberts (Sarandon). All, however, are doomed when Miriam sets her sights on Roberts to be her next lover.

Three years later Bowie agreed to Jim Henson’s continued requests to be in his latest film project, and fandom got Jareth the Goblin King from Labyrinth (1986). For many, Jareth is the perfect movie role for Bowie, and the Goblin King has enter the ranks of all the other personas that he created over his decades as a rock star. Last year we published an in depth analysis of the character in Labyrinth‘s Emotionally Abusive Goblin King,” exploring the symbolism and motives of this most lovable of villains. 

So Bowie had been a spaceman, a vampire, and a goblin, but it was 20 years after Labyrinth that Bowie got to be a Steampunk as well in The Prestige (2006). The basic premise of the film revolves around a long term rivalry between two magicians, Robert Angier (played by Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (played by Christian Bale), who were once friends before a tragic on stage accident that resulted in a death of Angier’s wife. After this schism the magicians compete to out perform and humiliate the other, which leads Angier to seek new technology and employ the help of Steampunk’s favorite inventor . . . Nikola Tesla, played by David Bowie!

Although these are only a handful of films to star David Bowie, it is his genre films for which he is best remembered as an actor. Since the release of “Space Oddity” in 1969, Bowie has been strongly influenced by, and has strongly influenced, the science fiction genre in its many forms. Songs such as “Life on Mars?,” “Loving the Alien,” “Starman,” “Hallo Spaceboy,” and plenty more satellite the world of rock and rock like, as Flight of the Concords put it, “a choir of Afronauts singing.” Actually, Bowie’s relationship with science fiction was probably best captured by a fan interviewed in the documentary Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1973) when she said, “We’re all space cadets, and he’s the Supreme Commander!”


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